Rating: 4 stars ****
Title: Loosen Up Naturally
Catalog: SWBB 200
Country/State: San Francisco, California
Grade (cover/record): VG / VG
Comments: double LP; gatefold sleeve
Catalog ID: 6317
Ah, The Sons of Champlin ... talk about a talented band cursed with years of poor choices, personnel hiccups, at least one mental meltdown, mismanagement, corporate indifference, and more than their share of simple bad luck. Most folks don't have a clue these guys are, and if there's name recognition they tend to get lumped in with the rest of the San Francisco psych mafia - The Airplane, The Dead, Quicksilver, etc. While they share the same geographic roots and played many of the same clubs and ballrooms, The Sons were on a totally different wavelength. Yeah probably just as stoned, but on a different musical path.
The band's roots trace back to The Opposite Six (one of at least three bands with the same name) which singer/keyboardist Bill Champlin formed while in high school. Drawn by the lure of music Chaplin quit school to pursue music on a professional basis. The band (sax players Ron Arnsmeyer and Tim Cain, Champlin, guitarist Don Irving, bassist Rob Moitoza, and drummer Dick Rogers) actually scored a contract with Dot releasing a lone 1965 single ('All Night Long' b/w 'Come Straight Home' (Dot catalog number 16700) before Moitoza and Rogers fell victim to the draft effectively, killing the group. Champlin and Cain continued their partnership bringing in guitarist Terry Haggerty, drummer Jim Meyers, and former Warlocks/Grateful Dead bassist John Prosser. Originally known as The Masterbeats (great name for a bunch of young guys), the group quickly adopted the name The Sons of Champlin (apparently a nod to namesake Champlin who'd become a father rather early in life). Over the next two years the band line up expanded to include trumpet player Jim Beem and keyboard player Geoff Palmer. They also went through a series of personnel changes. Original drummer Meyers joined the Army as a medic (and later became a physician) and was replaced by ex-Electric Train member Bill Bowen. Bass player Prosser was replaced by Al Strong. In spite of the personnel turnovers, by 1967 their unique hybrid of psych, horns and jazz moves had made them a popular staple on the local club, college, and festival scenes.
The Sons' initial break came when they were signed to Frank Werber's Trident Records. Distributed nationally by Verve, they made their debut with the 1967 single 'Sing Me a Rainbow' b/w 'Fat City (Verve catalog number VX 10500).
The single did well regionally peaking at # 124 nationally, leading to plans for a follow-on single - a cover of the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil song 'Shades of Grey'. Those plans fell apart when The Monkees beat them to the punch with their version of the song. It also scuttled plans to release a Sons album. (Under the title "Fat City" Big Beat label issued the collection in CD format in 1999 (Big Beat catalog number CDWIKD 188).
Things looked promising when manager Fred Roth convinced Mercury Records to sign the band, but nothing came of the partnership and in 1968 they moved over to Capitol which having signed The Steve Miller Band and Quicksilver Messenger Service was desperate to sign any San Francisco/Marin County-based outfit. In fact the company was so anxious to sign San Francisco talent that they allowed the band to record a freebee 45 - the Cain penned 'Jesus Is Coming, Part 1' b/w 'Jesus Is Coming, Part 2' (Capitol catalog number SPRO 4667). Capitol reportedly pressed 8,000 copies allowing the band to distribute them to friends and acquaintances. In fact I think fans were encouraged to send in and request a copy ... Anyone know for sure?
Co-produced by David Shallock (misspelled Shelleck) and Bruce Walford, 1969's "Loosen Up Naturally" was an eleven track, double album set. For a band without a proven sales track record, agreeing to finance a double album set was a surprisingly brave, or perhaps fool hearted decision by Capitol executives. 'Course the late-1960s were an era when anything was possible ... As was then standard operating procedure for San Francisco bands, the group apparently went into Golden Star Studios planning to capture what was the live repertoire they'd been working on for the last two years. Unfortunately, having suffered what may have been a drug induced mental episode, trumpet player Beem was sidelined for the recording session. That forced the rest of the band to quickly rearrange some of the material to eliminate the horn arrangements and in some cases cover the horn arrangements themselves. As a result much of the sprawling four sides had a spur-of-the-moment feel that stumbled all over the musical spectrum. I'll be the first to admit the set was somewhat chaotic, but it's unique charm has certainly grown on me over the years. Credited to the pseudonym B.B Heavy out of concern he might have signed away songwriting rights to Trident Records, nine of the eleven tracks were actually Champlin compositions. Curiously for a band with a reputation for playing it fast and loose, Champlin came off as a surprisingly focused composer. While most of the songs clocked in at over four minutes, with the exception of 'Get High' and 'Freedom' most were devoid of pointless jams that marred much of the era's output. The four side one tracks were probably the most focused selections. '1982-A' (named after a number on the tape reel) opened the album with a nice rocker. 'The Thing To Do' and 'Misery Isn't Free' were also impressive numbers displaying the band's soul influences. Side three's 'Black and Blue Rainbow' found the group showcasing their jazzy influences, while 'Hello Sunshine' was a rather commercial offering with some nice Association-styled group vocals and killer performances from guitarist Haggerty and bassist Strong. 'Things Are Gettin' Better' was another nice soul-influenced effort. Side four was taken up by a 14 minute jam entitled 'Freedom'. The track started out as a fairly focused blues/jazz hybrid, but stretched over a side eventually wore out it's welcome - particularly when Champlin started to scat about halfway through. Anyone under the illusion that everything from the late-1960s was magical need only listen to the second half of this song. Yech !
Elsewhere Capitol also tapped the album for a pair of instantly obscure singles:
- 1969's '1982-A' b/w 'Black and Blue Rainbow' (Capitol catalog number 2437)
- 1969's 'Freedom' b/w 'Hello Sunshine' (Capitol catalog number 2534)
- '1982-A' was a perfect example of the band's strengths and weaknesses. Buried somewhere in the mix were the bones of an interesting song, but those characteristics were largely lost amidst the weird stop and start song structure, blaring horns, and the song's ever changing structure ... where did that jazzy segment come from ? Even though it wasn't particularly commercial Capitol tapped this one as the leadoff single. rating: *** stars
- Surrounded by Geoffrey Palmer's stabbing organ and Terry Haggerty's guitar (he also turned in one of the album's best solos on this track), 'The Thing To Do' found the band at their heaviest, though the results would have been even better had the dropped the irritating horn arrangement. rating: *** stars
- So, just as the opening sound effects led you to believe 'Misery Isn't Free' was going to be a slice of psychedelic meltdown, the song morphed into a bouncy, bluesy, country-rock number. Imagine something out of the Commander Cody catalog, though this had a far stronger melody and Bill Champlin was a far better singer. rating: *** stars
- 'Rooftop' started out as a fairly commercial slice of blue-eyed soul before devolving into an extended and occasionally almost freeform jam. The first half of the song was quite good and the second half, not so much ... rating: ** stars
- 'Everywhere' was one of the album's most commercial rockers and while there were horns, they were mercifully subtle. Would have made a better single that the two songs Capitol tapped. rating: *** stars
- Starting out as almost a novelty country number, 'Don't Fight It, Do It!' picked up steam when Haggerty's lead guitar kicked in and the song shifted directions towards a more rock oriented groove. 'Course, it quickly wandered off in yet another direction, including a strange '50s-styled segment. rating: ** stars
- Clocking in at over seven minutes, 'Get High' started out as another slice of blue-eyed soul and then lost its way, descending into an extended horn segment, followed by a xylophone solo (always loved the hysterical inhaling sound effects - guess Bill Clinton wasn't at these recoding sessions). rating: ** stars
- 'Black & Blue Rainbow' could have been one of the standout performances were it not for the irritating horns and the weird, pseudo-Stax riff that kept popping up ... rating: ** stars
- Kicked along by some surprisingly nice group harmony vocals, Tim Cain's 'Hello Sunlight' was probably the album's most commercial song. With a bit of editing it would have been a good choice as a single. rating: *** stars
- 'Things Are Gettin' Bette' was simply one of their best blue-eyed soul compositions and offered up a track where the punchy horns actually improved the song. rating: **** stars
- As was common for the late-1960s, side four was devoted to a side long jam entitled 'Freedom'. The song actually started out with one of the album's strongest melodies (the horns arrangement was even half bad) and one of Champlin's most focused vocals. An even bigger surprise, clocking in at almost 15 minutes the song remained fairly focused about 80% of the time, losing its way during an needless Champlin scat segment, but rebounding with an energetic closing segment.